How do we honor the past and evolve it at the same time? At what point does an evolution become a full fledged departure? While few of the objects in Japanese Kōgei | Future Forward at the Museum of Arts & Design (MAD) seem especially edgy, taken as a whole they represent a new direction for Japan’s revered Kōgei craft tradition.
What is kōgei? According to MAD’s website, it is “a genre of traditional art that may be roughly translated as “artisan crafts”—a means of highly skilled artistic expression, both in form and decoration, that is associated with specific regions and peoples in Japan. The subject is steeped in tradition and rooted in upholding conventional cultural ideals and aesthetics through the mastery of specialized techniques and materials.”
While kōgei artists have traditionally looked to the past for inspiration and artistic guidance, the artists in this show are inspired by the future. The introduction of this subjective (for how can we know the future?), forward looking attitude into the artwork is the pivot point for asking how far can tradition to be pushed before it becomes something new entirely?
But let’s set that debate aside and look at another reason this show is interesting. It is an exhibition of fine craft, which we don’t often see in the United States. It is not surprising that this show originated in Japan, where painting and craft are perceived as equally accomplished and valuable art forms. In the United States, craft and its kin, decorative arts, are rarely the subject of stand alone exhibitions, acting instead as accents to major themed exhibitions.
The word “craft’ just doesn’t garner the same respect as, say, “art” or “design”. Which is probably why the Museum of Arts & Design chose to change its name from The American Craft Museum. I’ve written before about not really understanding what MAD was about or who it was for. Now, having visited and seen two excellent shows (this one, and Wendell Castle Remastered) about contemporary crafted objects, I wonder if the problem isn’t simply the museum’s name?
Whatever it is called, let’s see more shows that celebrate the dedication and artistry of master crafts men and women! Japanese Kōgei | Future Forward is on view through February 7, 2016 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.
Read more about Japanese craft tradition:
Art Crafting Towards the Future (exhibition catalog)
The Power of Decoration: A Viewpoint on Contemporary Kogei